The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.

tayari-jones-800

Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Sorting Out Fear—BLM, Police, and Everybody Else

Last week, the “Black Lives Matter” movement was freshly galvanized in protests and outrage after two black men, in two separate incidents, were shot and killed by police. Days later, a black gunman in Dallas, Texas, who “wanted to kill white people” opened fire from building windows onto police officers below, killing five and wounding nine others. This in turn triggered counter protests, citing phrases such as “Blue Lives Matter,” and the alternative “All Lives Matter.” These events have resulted in no small amount of confusion, commentary, and rising anger. But one thing is abundantly clear: every party involved is afraid. Black people are afraid. Police are afraid. Pundits are afraid. Opponents of #BLM are afraid. Proponents of “All Lives Matter” are afraid. On all involved, an overwhelming umbra of fear has settled and is taking root. If we don’t begin to address our fear problem, I fear all our solutions will run foul.

blue-lives-matter-moreAt the heart, a pandemic of fear such as this one cripples the self. Fear foreshortens our perceptions, incapacitating us to see beyond our immediate needs for security. All things are measured in relation to my safety, my needs, my understanding of the world. In time, the need for safety and security begins to warp desire. Distrust bred by fear then drives individuals further inward. Where fear rules, humans become small, prisoners of their own limitations, prisoners of their fear as it grows ever larger, becoming tyrannical, dominating every thought and action.

In time fear takes root and begins to govern perception. After all, where fear thrives, so also does distrust, and where distrust thrives, misunderstandings become rampant. From the dominating perspective of my fear I become incapable of truly seeing the other. In this way a pandemic of fear cripples relationships. From the illusory safety of homogeneous enclaves, fear warps my perceptions and makes it easy to judge those “outside,” those who are visibly different. Under the governance of fear, all differences are immediately suspect.

Black Americans are afraid—and however one might argue the origins of their fear, their fear remains real, and in its reality it has shaped and warped perception. Policemen and women in America are also afraid—and once again regardless of the warrants for their fear it is a fear that in time warps perception and shapes identity. Americans uninvolved with either of these groups have submitted to the authority of fear as well, and in fear they are giving vent to anger, taking sides in debates and dialogues, and winning talking points while missing the heart. Until the sources of fear are acknowledged and addressed, no real changes will take place.

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

In all this, Obi Wan Kenobi’s words to young Luke seem relevant, even poignant: “Don’t give in to hate.” The Dark Side looms alluringly in the background, striving to offer a simple solution, to run amok with the adverse passions of emotion. Yet if we would stem the bleeding, I perceive five sources of fear that must be addressed.

1) Ignorance. Fear thrives in a culture of ignorance as fruit flies gather around moldy fruit. Ancient mapmakers marked the boundaries of their knowledge with images of dragons; what was unknown was an occasion for fear. Today, where we are siloed into comfortable communities, arranged by suburb, or news sources, or circles of similar friends, it remains an easy matter to section off the other. Where ignorance thrives, tropes and stereotypes become our only sources of knowledge about others, and stereotypes can grow into racism when an individual clings to a stereotype in the face of new evidence.

Education is a powerful tonic against ignorance. The original Latin word educare means, literally, to lead out. It is the act of drawing out from a student thinking, information, and knowledge; it is to lead an individual out of his own small self-perception and into a broader world of perceptions and thoughts. To educate, then, is the antonym of “to silo.” The power of education is manifestly magnified in these circumstances by friendship—a sincere and prolonged relational “bid” for the other. Such a bid requires humility (I don’t know it all), patience (I’m willing to figure this out), forgiveness (you don’t know it all), and humor (the great equalizer). In fact, if we cannot laugh with one another about our differences, very few strides forward will be possible.

Black and White Children Together2) Bad Information. One of our primary sources of information about world situations and about other people is the mass media, but we are unreflective of the fact that the media has an agenda often at odds with good information. The “news” gives you precisely that—what is new. Not necessarily what is true, or reflected upon, or properly interpreted. From any given event we are offered a headline which proposes to be “newsworthy”—that is, eye-catching, interesting, compelling, and therefore often full of pathos, or tragedy, or outrage. The mass media specialize in presenting its consumers with first judgments. But as the Proverbs state (18:17), “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” In other words, every story sounds good until you hear the other side. The point is this: the media have specialized in offering one side of the story—the sensational side—and leaving off what might bring nuance, complexity, or actual insight. Thus, our perceptions of others are shaped by a continuous barrage of extremes, so that all our evidence falls within the outrageous, and little has been offered by way of counterpoint. In time, these sources of information become mingled with fear, and fear then buffers against alternative perspectives.

The old adage that everything should be taken “with a grain of salt” is true here. But in addition to that attitude of reflective patience, we should also heed Baron von Hügel’s advice to press on toward the “second clarity.” Consider his advice as follows:

…nothing in philosophy, still more in religion, should ever be attempted in and with the first clearness (what, e.g., journalists are content with, and have to be content with), but in and with the second clearness, which only comes after that first cheery clarity has gone, and has been succeeded by a dreary confusion and obtuseness of mind. Only this second clearness, rising up, like something in no wise one’s own, from the depths of one’s subconsciousness—only this is any good in such great matters. And this process is costly, humiliating, and very easily disturbed by rubbishy self-occupations. (Letters to a Niece, 135)

It is a difficult thing to strive for good information amidst the sea of bad, and yet no true answer to our fears can be offered otherwise. In all stories presented to the eye and ear, the discerning heart must strive for the second clearness, and never be content to settle with the first.

Hugging after Prayer

From CNN: Tyler Francis, right, hugs Shondrey Dear after praying together

3) Corrupted Affections. The “affections” refer to the emotional trajectory of the heart, and identify the shaping of the heart’s desires toward certain objectives. The affections are corrupted especially through what is entertained in the heart and through what is presented to the eye. In time, under these twin influences our perceptions are further warped. Cultivated hatred is a corrupted affection—corrupted, because there are things we ought to hate (like the fact that Black mothers have to teach their sons how not to get killed on the street). But instead of hating those things that are worthy of hate, in fear we give permission to hate things that are other, such as hatred of someone different than I, or hatred of civil authorities, or hatred of any other irrational and undiscernable kind. Where the desires of mankind are corrupted, chaos gains a foothold. Where my affections long for illicit things, I begin to project those illicit longings onto other people. Cultivating a spirit of dissatisfaction with life can begin to develop an affection which desires to make others small—I may become a bully. Prolonged feelings of powerlessness combined with a perception of my own deserving worth can cultivate an affection of revenge—I will do all in my power to get what is mine.

The words of Jesus in Luke 6:45 are remarkably appropriate here, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” In other words, what we fill ourselves with in a spiritual, intellectual sense, bleeds out. Gorging our eyes on hateful media, praising criminality, objectifying women, these things corrupt our affections and combine with the overarching spirit of fear to poison hearts and minds alike. Not long ago, Late Show host Jimmy Kimmel produced a comedy spot where famous rappers re-edited their hits with child-appropriate lyrics. NWA’s famous, “F*ck the Police” was reedited to the lyrics, “Hug the Police”—the video showed children reciting the new lyrics while, indeed, hugging police officers. I couldn’t help but wonder, how would our tragic situations in the news be different if, indeed, all our children were singing about hugging the police rather than the alternative? How we train our affections has direct impact on our actions in the world.

Hug the Police4) Identity Disorder. For people who no longer know who they are or where they belong in the world, fear is a natural byproduct. Loss of identity generates loss of certainty. Uncertainty, I believe, compounds with fear and frustrated ambitions to generate outbursts of excessive violence. We kill people in acts of senseless violence because, fundamentally, we have forgotten what it means to be people at all. I intend to write much more extensively on this at a later point, but for now it must suffice for me to say that so long as humanity lives in rejection to its true identity, fear will be rampant, and mass shootings will continue.

5) Bad Fear. Fear itself is not a bad thing. There are things we ought to fear—such as high ledges, boundaries, civil authorities, and prison. But when fear is ascribed to the wrong objectives, we grant those objects power in our lives. Fear, after all, is a form of reverence—what you fear is what you worship, even implicitly. People who fear the other for whatever reason—whether the other be black, white, police, Muslim, LGBTQ, or otherwise—those people are very often giving an undue worship to the very thing they claim to despise. Their fear/reverence has come to dominate their life, their attitudes, their thoughts, their affections. They are turning from a truer humanity to a corrupted, diminished humanity.

The Proverbs again state the “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Retreat from ignorance, accumulation of good information and good judgments, development of proper affections, growing into ordered identities—these are each answered by setting our first fear in the right place. There is only One who is worthy of our fear—God—He who judges, gives life and takes it, and Who in time gives certain restitution for all the wrongs of humanity. But I fear that until our fear is anchored on Him, the pandemic of fear will continue unabated, and the shedding of blood will continue to testify against our unwillingness to grow beyond our fears. I pray for the day, when, rather than fear covering the earth like a flood, the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth, “as the waters cover the sea.”